Size Matters: Seventh Circuit Rejects Subway Footlong Settlement Because It Provided No Meaningful Benefit To Class Members

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Subway (pd)I am a regular Subway customer, so I read the Seventh Circuit's opinion, In re. Subway Footlong Sandwich Marketing and Sales Practices Litigation, with great interest. You probably remember the events that spawned this litigation. As the Seventh Circuit described it: "In January 2013 Matt Corby, an Australian teenager, purchased a Subway Footlong sandwich and, for reasons unknown, decided to measure it. The sandwich was only 11 inches long. He took a photo of the sandwich next to a tape measure and posted the photo on his Facebook page. Thus a minor social-media sensation was born." And, "[w]ithin days of Corby's post, the American class-action bar rushed to court," therefore, a class action lawsuit was also born. It ended a few years later with a settlement, which the Seventh Circuit just overturned.

To say that the Seventh Circuit was critical of the settlement would be an understatement. Its opinion is filled with subtle, and not so subtle, criticisms of the settlement and plaintiffs' counsel. For example, early in its opinion, the court observed: "In their haste to file suit [ ] the lawyers neglected to consider whether the claims had any merit. They did not." It did not get much better for plaintiffs from that point on.

The court noted that the parties engaged in limited, informal discovery early on in the case, with the intent of going to mediation. This discovery revealed that plaintiffs' claims were deficient. It showed that "the length of the [baked] bread has no effect on the quantity of food each customer receives." First, all of Subway's raw dough is exactly the same size. So, even the few rolls that bake to approximately a quarter-inch less than 12 inches because of natural, and unpreventable, "vagaries in the baking process" provide the same bread as those that bake to the full 12 inches. Second, Subway standardizes the amount of meat and cheese that its "sandwich artists" put on each sandwich, so whether the bread is 12 inches long or a quarter-inch short, the customer still gets the same amount of food. (In the interest of full disclosure, because I am a regular, I do occasionally get an extra slice of ham, salami, and pepperoni on my six-inch BMT at my local Subway.) "This early discovery, limited though it was, extinguished any hope of certifying a damages class."

"Rather than drop the suits as meritless," however, plaintiffs shifted the focus of the lawsuit from one seeking damages to one seeking injunctive relief. THey filed an amendec complaint and, after mediation, reached a settlement with Subway, under which Subway would, for four years, implement practices designed to ensure, the the extent possible, that its sandwich rolls measured at least 12 inches long. But, the settlement noted that "because of the inherent variability in food production and the bread baking process, Subway could not guarantee that each sandwich roll [would] always be exactly 12 inches or greater in length after baking." In other words, Subway would try to fix, but could not guarantee that it would fix, the problem that spawned the lawsuit. 

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What Happens when a jury concludes that “John Doe” was 97% responsible for an accident

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

John doe (pd)
It is not uncommon for lawsuits to include fictitious defendants, usually identified as John Doe or Jane Doe. When the identity of the fictitious defendant is discovered, the complaint is amended to include the real name of the party. But what happens when a case goes all the way to trial with John Doe alongside actual, real life defendants, and the jury concludes that Mr. Doe was almost entirely responsible for the accident that was the subject of the lawsuit? This is exactly what happened in Krzykalski v. Tindall.

In Krzykalski, plaintiff was driving his car in front of defendant's car. Both slowed down to allow an emergency vehicle to enter the road. When they started up again, a third car, driven by an unknown driver, passed both of them on the right and cut in front of them to make a left turn. Plaintiff was able to avoid hitting the unknown driver, but defendant rear ended plaintiff. Plaintiff sued both drivers, one by name and one as "John Doe." At trial, the jury found both defendants liable, but apportioned 97% of the responsibility to John Doe. Therefore, only about $3,000 of the jury's $107,890 verdict in plaintiff's favor was attributable to the named defendant.

Plaintiff appealed, arguing that the jury should not have been able to consider, much less apportion, John Doe's liability. He argued that (1) under New Jersey's Comparative Negligence Act, a jury is only allowed to apportion liability between defendants based on each "party's" negligence, but (2) New Jersey courts have held that a fictitious defendant is not a "party" to a lawsuit, therefore (3) a jury cannot apportion any liability to a fictitious defendant. The Appellate Division held that this argument had "the appearance of some syllogistic logic," but, unfortunately for plaintiff, did not find it persuasive.

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Does a judge have to explain the “empty chair” to the jury when there was never anyone sitting there in the first place?

 by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Empty chairA recent trial court decision, Hernandez v. Chekenian, dealt with a minor, but significant, twist on a common scenario involving the so-called empty chair defense. This defense does not literally involve an empty chair. Rather it refers to the situation when defense counsel argues to a jury that someone else, someone not sitting at the defense table, is to blame for plaintiff's injuries. That party is usually, but not always, missing because they settled with the plaintiff.

The New Jersey model jury charges contain two settling co-defendant instructions. One is very short, and simply notifies the jury that a defendant settled and that "[t]he effect of that settlement on the parties still [t]here is of no concern to you at the present time and you should not speculate about that." The second is more detailed. It similarly notes that the jury should not "speculate as to the reasons why the plaintiff and defendant settled their dispute" and "should not be concerned about the amount, if any, that may have been paid to resolve the claim," but then instructs the jury to consider "whether or not the settling defendant was negligent and a proximate cause of the accident," and, if it does, to then "apportion fault in terms of percentages among/between the settling defendant(s) and the remaining defendant(s)." 

Hernandez involved a three-car, chain reaction crash. Plaintiff was the passenger in the middle car. He sued the driver and owner of the first car, the driver and owner of the middle car (in which plaintiff was a passenger), and the driver of the third car. Prior to trial, plaintiff dismissed the claims against the driver and owner of the first car and the claims against the owner of the second car. He then settled the claims against the driver of the middle car. That left only the claims against the driver of the third car for trial. Counsel for the one remaining defendant requested that the court give the jury a settling co-defendant charge.  

Continue reading “Does a judge have to explain the “empty chair” to the jury when there was never anyone sitting there in the first place?”

Rova Farms – From Born to Run to Bad Faith

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

SpringsteenI am in the middle of reading “Born to Run,” Bruce Springsteen’s memoir. I am about one-third of the way through and so far, so good. I just finished reading about “the only full-scale truly scary bar brawl [of Bruce and the band’s] club lives.” It happened in Rova Farms, a “Russian social club on the outskirts of town.” (In Springsteen’s life, like in his songs, the important things always seem to happen on the outskirts of town.) The brawl started right before the band broke into “Santa Clause is Coming to Town,” and ended with the police being called and several people being taken out on stretchers.

Like nearly all New Jersey lawyers, I know Rova Farms as a thing – a “Rova Farms letter” or a “Rova Farms claim” – not a place. It was interesting to read a story about the place behind the thing. For the uninitiated, Rova Farms Resort v. Investors Ins. Co. of America, was a case involving a visitor to Rova Farms who was injured, not in a bar brawl, but from diving into a shallow portion of a lake on the resort. He sustained serious spinal cord injuries and was paralyzed. The resort’s insurance carrier refused to tender the full, $50,000 policy limit to settle the claim. The case went to trial and the jury returned a $225,000 verdict. The resort then sued its carrier for the full amount of the judgment, alleging that it acted in bad faith by not settling the claim within the policy limits.

The New Jersey Supreme Court agreed, holding that an insurer’s bad-faith failure to settle within policy limits renders it liable for the full amount of the judgment, including any portion in excess of the policy limits. As a result of this decision, defendants in New Jersey will usually send a “Rova Farms letter” to their carriers when a plaintiff offers to settle a case within policy limits. The letter puts the carrier on notice that, if it does not settle within the policy limits, the insured will look to the carrier to pay the entire judgment. Of course, the obligation to do so only arises when the carrier acts in bad faith, but, needless to say, this letter tends to change the dynamic between insured and insurer.   

Back to Bruce . . . As far as New Jersey courts are concerned, Rova Farms is far more popular than Springsteen. The case has been cited more than 3,800 times in New Jersey alone. A search of all state and federal court opinions for Bruce Springsteen yields 87 hits, and only 5 of those are from New Jersey courts. Local hero indeed.

Settlement Stands Even Though Lawyer Allegedly Settled For Less Than Authorized

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Contract(pd)
Embarrassing as this is to admit, there was a time when I did not entirely understand the difference between "net" and "gross." I would like to say that time was long ago, but it wasn't that long ago. Rest assured, however, that I know the difference now. The difference between the two was at the heart of Thakkar v. Allers, an unpublished decision from the Appellate Division in which plaintiff claimed that he authorized his attorney to settle for a net recovery of $80,000 but his lawyer settled for the gross amount of $80,000. In other words, plaintiff thought he would receive $80,000 from the settlement but he actually received less than $80,000 after fees and costs were deducted from the gross settlement amount. Plaintiff tried to undo the settlement, but the trial court denied his request and the Appellate Division affirmed.

Thakkar involved a personal injury lawsuit. Plaintiff was awarded $50,000 through mandatory, pre-trial arbitration, but rejected that award and demanded trial de novo. Prior to trial, plaintiff claims that he authorized his attorney to settle the case for "an amount that would yield an $80,000 recovery to [plaintiff], after deductions for fees and costs." He claimed that he gave his attorney these instructions over the telephone and in a letter. Several days after the alleged telephone conversation between plaintiff and plaintiff's counsel, plaintiff's counsel settled the case in a call with defendants' counsel and later confirmed the settlement in an email to defendants' counsel, which read: "As discussed at 5 PM today, [plaintiff] has authorized [plaintiff's counsel] to accept $80,000.00 in settlement."

Four days later, plaintiff's counsel wrote to defendants' counsel to report that plaintiff refused to sign a release because he wanted a settlement yielding a net recovery of $80,000, a fact that plaintiff's counsel indicated was "in no way" communicated to him by plaintiff before plaintiff's counsel advised defendants' counsel that plaintiff's counsel was authorized to settle the case for "the sum of $80,000.00."

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